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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Filling in the bubble: Local colleges step away from standardized tests

Universities across the country, including Whitworth University, are offering “test optional” applications, allowing students to forgo the ACT and SAT. Eastern Washington University plans to propose this option. (Shutterstock)

Aaron is staying at a hotel that charges $99.95 per night plus tax for a room. A tax of 8% is applied to the room rate, and an additional one-time untaxed fee of $5 is charged by the hotel. Which of the following represents Aaron’s total charge, in dollars, for staying x nights?

Depending on access to test-taking strategies and other variables, this Scholastic Aptitude Test question could be a breeze for some, and a significant barrier for others. So universities increasingly are offering “test optional” admissions processes, including Whitworth University, which made the switch in 2007.

“Highly correlated variables are household incomes and test score, and there’s lots of socioeconomic reasons why that’s the case, but we definitely did not want test scores to wind up being an obstacle to otherwise good students,” said Greg Orwig, Whitworth vice president for admissions and financial aid.

In 2017, the national average SAT score for students whose parents’ highest level of education was a high school diploma was 1003. If parents had a bachelor’s degree, the average student’s score was 1118, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Other factors that correlate to a lower score include race, household income and gender.

In order to apply “test optional” at Whitworth, the student has to have at least a 3.0 cumulative grade point average, and in lieu of the scores, the student has a phone interview. Ahead of the interview, the prospective student is given two articles they will need to discuss during the interview.

“We feed them these questions and they’re not designed to be gotcha,” Orwig said. “They’re designed to evaluate whether the student took the assignment seriously, whether they were able to read and understand the content of the article and whether they can discuss them in a way that they would likely need to do in a classroom.”

Of the 3,486 students admitted to Whitworth, 426 applied without submitting an SAT or ACT.

First-generation college students accounted for 53.8% of those test optional students. Whitworth said 60.6% were from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds and 68.5% were women.

Robert Schaeffer, FairTest public education director, said test optional is a win-win for colleges and students.

“This helps release one of the awful pressures of the college admissions process, which is the test score policy, and that is increasingly an issue for kids who grew up in the No Child Left Behind era, when many felt they were tested to death and being viewed as just the score,” Schaeffer said.

FairTest was founded in 1985, with a focus on researching universities offering test-optional admissions. In the last 15 years, more than 140 colleges have decided to go test-optional, including Puget Sound University in 2015 and Evergreen State College this spring. Schaeffer said more public universities are signing on, but the majority are private.

“Privates have independent decision-making power where both in academics and research, administrators can develop policies which reflect the school’s mission and the type of kids they want to select,” Schaeffer said.

Eastern Washington University would like to sign on. The university plans to propose this option to the Washington Student Achievement Council, potentially within the next 18 months, said Jana Jaraysi, EWU director of recruitment admissions. For now, Running Start participants are the only students who do not have to submit scores, and EWU has to follow the policy.

A test-optional policy gives the student “other ways to show they are college-ready, and each school does this differently as far as what information are we going to need to show that a student can exhibit that,” Jarayasi said.

Jarayasi pointed out that an interview process, like at Gonzaga, would be unwieldy with the number of applications EWU receives. But other options, such as an essay, could work. EWU would have other obstacles, since the tests are used for more than just admission. EWU currently uses the written portion of the SAT and ACT to place students in freshman English classes.

At Washington State University, students have to submit ACT and SAT scores, but do not have to meet minimum score requirements if they have a 3.5 cumulative GPA or are in the top 10% of their class.

While Gonzaga University does not have a test-optional policy, they encourage prospective students to interview if they have low scores. In fact, Gonzaga encourages all to interview prior to admission, said Erin Hayes, undergraduate admission director.

“Anyone can meet with us and have an admission interview and personalize their application,” Hayes said. “We encourage that because the more we know about a student the more we can direct them to great opportunities for them at Gonzaga that’s specific to their needs and interests.”

Gonzaga offers on-campus, on-the-road, telephone and Skype interviews. Hayes said of this year’s first-year student applicants, 923 did interviews and 717 were accepted, though she noted that many applicants – not only low-scorers – chose to go through Gonzaga’s interview process.

One obstacle to higher scores can be finances. The standard Kaplan college preparation course – which includes 18 hours of live instruction, 30 hours of additional elective instruction and eight practice tests – costs $899, said Sam Pritchard, Kaplan director of college prep programs.

The course comes with a guarantee: If the student’s score does not improve, Kaplan issues a full refund.

Pritchard said tens of thousands enroll in Kaplan college prep courses every year, and noted that high SAT and ACT scores can also provide opportunities for scholarships.

“We would recommend colleges get the most information that they can from students, and by and large that’s still what’s happening,” Pritchard said.